’Gers in Europe: Does Hell Await?
May 14, 2018 will mark the tenth anniversary of Glasgow Rangers’ closest brush with a second European trophy, after winning the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup in 1972. The interim years, since that Manchester final of 2008, have been famously unkind to a club that once stood equal with its eternal rival Celtic in a football hotbed. However, through unity and endeavour, Pedro Caixinha’s men have taken the club, in part, back to where it belongs. The seeded and unseeded teams of each Europa League round are decided by a club’s European coefficient, which is an integer (in Rangers’ case, 3.785) based on European appearances and performances over the most recent five seasons. To give an idea of just how much lost ground Rangers must recover, the coefficient of the current Champions League trophy holders, Real Madrid, is 176.999. Despite being absent from Europe for six years, Rangers are set to be seeded in the first qualifying round.
First Qualifying Round
Of the unseeded clubs that Rangers could face, Siroki Brijeg is considered the toughest opponent, with the Bosnian club ‘boasting’ a coefficient of 3.550. They are managed by Goran Sablić, a former Croatian international whose no-nonsense defending made him a respected feature at Hadjuk Split and (later) Dynamo Kiev as a player. Siroki Brijeg are no stranger to the European stage, but have yet to progress past the third qualifying round, being annihilated 7-1 on aggregate by Udinese in August 2013. By contrast, drawing FC Prishtina of Kosovo (0.000) would be almost as good as a bye to the next round, with the club having never before made a European appearance.
Second Qualifying Round
In the event of every seeded side qualifying for the second round, including Rangers, some much meaner teams will lie in wait to devour a Rangers side that would this time be unseeded. By far the most dangerous of all would be Galatasaray, winners of the corresponding competition in 2000, who boast a universally feared captain in Wesley Sneijder. The two clubs have met before in European competition, with Rangers drawing and losing in two UEFA Champions League group stage games back in 2000/01:
Maccabi Tel-Aviv and Astra Giurgiu are also amongst the ‘better’ sides in the seeded list, provided that the former is eliminated from the Champions League as an unseeded side. It is, however, the latter club that has gained notoriety in recent years as a giant-killer, with the Romanian club remarkably dispatching West Ham in the qualifying rounds two years running. Though the club is currently without a head coach, fullback captain Cristian Săpunaru – who won an impressive number of honours with Porto in his heydey – has the vast experience necessary to guide his team to more famous victories.
At the bottom of the predicted seeded list in this round dwells Panionios. The Greek club’s low coefficient is the result of a ten-year absence from Europe, but it is worth noting that they were far from humiliated in the 2007-08 competition. The Blue-Reds avoided last place in a group that (curiously) contained Galatasaray, and they finished level on points with the Turks. They were ultimately eliminated by virtue of an inferior versus record, having lost the decisive encounter with Galatasaray 3-0.
Without a doubt, Rangers’ finest hour.
Third Round and Beyond?
Should the fates be kind to Rangers, and see the famous club safely through to the subsequent rounds, then the glamour ties will genuinely start to become a reality, with clubs such as AC Milan potentially lying in wait. Indeed, the Rossoneri are adjudged as only second-favourites behind Arsenal to win the Europa League outright – by both cash bookmakers (who currently price the Italians at around 16/1) and bitcoin-only soccer betting services alike. A revenge match against 2008 winners Zenit St Petersburg could also be forthcoming. The seeded list of the third and fourth qualifying rounds would also likely include many other distinguished clubs, such as Athletic Bilbao, Everton, PSV and Fenerbahce. Though the early qualifying rounds of the Europa League are a far cry from the illustrious surroundings of stadia such as the Etihad Stadium, it is nonetheless the proving ground at which Rangers find themselves in a bid to regain lost stature on the European stage. Progress will be crucial if Rangers are to (at the very least) ever again be guaranteed a place on the seeded list at every stage of the competition.